The news this week that public opinion of Congress had sunk to new lows, with just 7 percent of Americans having any significant confidence in the institution, is yet another reminder of how bad things are on Capitol Hill.
To most Americans, members of Congress rank right up there with snake oil salesmen. But were congressional politics ever really such a revered occupation?
Brookings Institution’s congressional expert Thomas Mann says no. The job by its very nature was never intended to produce great statesmen. What’s needed to do the job well, Mann says, are the political skills of negotiating and problem-solving. And politicking has always carried with it a negative connotation.
So before you get too nostalgic for the good old days of functionality, remember that deprecating Congress is as American as apple pie.
Legend has it that President Andrew Jackson’s relationship with Congress was so strained that he had the Treasury Department built next to the White House to block Capitol Hill from view.
In that spirit, the Loop has compiled a list of some of our favorite quotes about Congress. (To be sure, the sport of politics has always been unpopular, but being completely ineffective creates a whole new layer of public disdain.)
1. “There is more selfishness and less principle among members of Congress than I had any conception of, before I became President of the U.S.”- James K. Polk, 1846
2. “If we were left solely to the wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonal experience and the effectual complaints of the people, America would not long retain her rank among the nations.” – Henry David Thoreau, 1849
3. “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.” – Mark Twain, 1881
4. “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.” – Will Rogers, 1930
5. “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing. Nobody listens—and then everybody disagrees.” – Russian actor Boris Marshalov, early 20th century? (Loop fans may remember him as the haberdasher in the 1966 film “Terror in the City.”).
6. “You can lead a man to Congress, but you can’t make him think.” – Milton Berle, circa 1950
7. “Congress seems drugged and inert most of the time. Even when the problems it ignores build up to crises and erupt in strikes, riots, and demonstrations, it has not moved. Its idea of meeting a problem is to hold hearings or, in extreme cases, to appoint a commission.” – Shirley Chisholm, 1970, first African American woman member of Congress
8. “I have wondered at times what the Ten Commandments would have looked like if Moses had run them through the US Congress.” - Ronald Reagan, circa 1980
See? Dumping on Congress has always been in vogue.